Sunday, December 16, 2007

Magic and fakery.

I spend time watching magic acts on TV and on YouTube, partly because they’re a lot of fun to watch and partly because, if a magician can do it without paranormal powers, then anyone claiming to do the same thing with paranormal powers must be examined with more than usual scrutiny. I don’t like to start any investigation by assuming I’m talking to a liar, but if I ever found myself in the position of checking out a spoon-bender, say, then I would have to be very careful indeed to watch for the magician’s tricks.

One thing I found hilarious was the comments beneath some of the videos. This week, I’ve been concentrating on Derren Brown, a magician who does most of his work with suggestion and hypnosis, and is extremely good at it. The comments included ‘He is a fake. It’s not real’.

Well, duh. He’s a magician. He states at the start of the show he’s going to use illusion and mental trickery. At the end of his shows, he often explains how he did it. That’s why I like this one so much.

In the argument with Dikkii, I voiced the opinion that people watching magic shows know it’s just illusion from the beginning. I know I’ve often said that most people are dolts, but even I didn’t think anyone would be daft enough to cry ‘fake’ at a show that’s meant to be just that. It’s all illusion. No hay banda. (Anyone get that reference?).

So, if a magician can do it, anyone claiming to do the same thing without trickery is going to have a tough time.

On the other hand, just because a magician can replicate a paranormal event does not prove that nobody can do it by paranormal means. It’s not debunking. It’s replication.

Derren Brown did a marvellous job of cold reading to a group who believed he was a psychic. Better than some stage psychics, in fact. Other magicians have replicated this also. There’s a common procedure where a group of people are given ‘horoscopes’ of one kind or another. These ‘horoscopes’ seem to be very specific to that person but, as is later revealed, they are all identical.

These are taken as proof that these areas of the paranormal are not real. They don’t prove it. They prove that there are fakes out there who can, with a little trickery, psychology and suggestion, convince people they are real.

We knew that. There are massive numbers of fakes. Some are earning huge amounts of money with these tricks. Most refuse absolutely to submit to any kind of test, and with good reason. Refusing the test doesn’t hurt their income. Taking the test would.

But that still doesn’t prove that all who profess to have these abilities are fakes. It doesn’t prove that the action itself, in all instances, is faked. That’s extremely difficult to do.

So is it worth continuing to investigate these things? Doesn’t it fail the falsifiability test if the negative can’t be proved?

Well, those who are fakes are taking money under false pretences. They are also causing so much background noise in investigations that they mask any potential real effect, and it should come as no surprise that the non-scientist will conclude that the whole subject must be fake, based on what they see and hear. So we need to remove the fakes, for scientific, legal and moral reasons.

The horoscope example involves a series of statements constructed by a psychologist or magician. No astrologer is being tested here, so there’s no debunking. If you want to test an astrologer you’d need to have them produce real horoscopes for a group of people, then give those horoscopes to the wrong people and see how they fit. Get them to rate their horoscopes, exchange them, and rate the new one. Everyone reads and rates every horoscope but there is no indication on the sheet of who each is intended for. If the astrologer shows real ability, the test subjects will rate the horoscope meant for them as the closest fit. Showing that it can be faked proves nothing new. We already know it can be. What we want to know is, is it always?

Take the psychic reading example. There’s an interview with John Edward on YouTube in which he claims he is honest and real. Then he gets a caller, who he gives a reading for. Watch closely. Watch a few times, then answer these:

If someone calls in to a show like this, how likely are they to give a false name?

Did he specify the name of the caller’s youngest son, or that the letters he had said belonged to anyone in particular?

When the caller said ‘youngest’ rather than ‘younger’, did that allow Edward to assume that there were more than two children?

Since he has three children, what are the most likely combinations of boys and girls? Three of one, or two of one and one of the other?

Since he has three children, and does not sound very old, what are the chances he’s a Catholic?

Now, what is the likelihood of a Catholic in New York having Irish descent, and how many of these are likely to have family in the police force? Would you have tried that guess?

There are many more, but one stands out. Edward did not know where the caller was located. The caller, I’ll bet, has no idea where the TV studios are. Did his dead father know? So how did his father’s ghost manage to find John Edward in a split-second after the call started? Whether you consider psychic ability to be real or not, there is no reason to suppose that ghosts are not subject to the laws of physics.

Finally, there’s a trick he uses that all fake mediums use. Lots of information, very fast, keeps the target confused and helps them forget the ‘misses’. Insisting you’re right and they’re wrong will, 99% of the time, cause them to concede. The psychic is famous, the target is not, and attention is on the target. Everyone expects the psychic to be right so if it’s wrong, it’s seen as the target’s fault. Almost all will cave in. This one didn’t.

None of the above proves that all psychics are fake. It proves that most of them are, which makes it almost impossible for a real psychic to prove themselves. So real ones rarely show up. Why bother? Nobody’s going to believe it, because it can be replicated so effectively by the fakes. When a psychic knows someone’s died before anyone else knows it, that’s pretty strong evidence, but proving it is close to impossible. It’s sheer luck (good or bad?) if that were to happen while the psychic was in the laboratory. Plus, the psychic then has a moral dilemma: how to tell the researcher his mother’s just died, say? Not a pleasant position to be in, I think you’ll agree.

We need these fakes out of the way. Only then is there any chance of finding any real effect. Unfortunately, fakes are like the mythical Hydra. Cut off one head, two more pop up. They are harder to get rid of than cockroaches.

Well, I don’t like to end on a negative note, so here’s something of Derren Brown’s that made me laugh. Nothing at all to do with the paranormal, just the best practical joke I’ve seen in a very long time.


Anonymous said...

So real ones rarely show up. Why bother? Nobody’s going to believe it, because it can be replicated so effectively by the fakes.

The other problem with 'showing up' is that physic skills are no more 100 percent accurate than sports skills. Even the top NBA players don't hit every basket they shoot. If they are alone on the court, undefended and able to concentrate fully they may hit 95 percent of the shots. In a game situation with defenders attempting to block them and the myriad distractions of the crowd and other factors they may hit 70 percent. Give them the flu, or a fight with their wife before the game, and their accuracy may drop to less than 50 percent of shots taken. And these guys are to tops in the world at their skill - sinking balls in baskets.

Why do we assume that psychics must be correct 100 percent of the time to be real? Seems unfair. And if you are real, why put yourself through the fallout caused by the occassional miss?

Romulus Crowe said...

Psychics that show 100% success are almost certainly fakes. Those that claim 'well, I sometimes get it wrong' when they've obviously been fishing for the information are also fakes.

A real psychic would sometimes have to say 'Sorry, there's nobody around'. That has never happened on any TV show, ever. Likewise, there has never been an instance where the TV medium has so many voices around him/her that they put their hands to their head and shout 'Shut up'. They always have spirits that connect with the audience or sitter, and always just enough for the time of the show or sitting.

Your point is correct - a real psychic might show up at the lab, and there'd be no spirits anywhere around the place. Since there's no scientific method to detect spirits, if the psychic says there's nobody around, then that's that. It counts as a 'fail' but it should not because there was no test.

Cheats can be detected fairly easily, but the real thing is very hard to prove.

The sports analogy isn't too good though. Try this: You can take a basketball player to a court and count how many hits he gets. He doesn't have to worry that there might be no ball, or no basket, and that we're not going to believe him if he says they're not there.

Real psychics can't make a career out of it. Career psychics have to succeed in every show. Even if they started out with some ability, the pressure to make up a few bits here and there would soon be irresistible because failure would stop that income.

Cheat once, and it gets easier next time, and easier again, until the cheating becomes easier than the working.

That excuses nothing. Even if a medium started out with an ability but succumbed to pressure, they're still cheating, and cheating can be shown to be so. Who's going to look for an underlying real ability in a proven cheat?

I wouldn't be interested in testing any psychic who gets a regular income for it. By its nature, it shouldn't be possible to do that.

Dikkii said...

Love Derren Brown's work. I check him out on Youtube sometimes.

Stage magic can sometimes be a bit over the top and silly, but when it's done well, it really looks good.

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